Falling felt like nothing, at first. Like the way he’d read it felt when you got stabbed. No pain, not even any sorrow–just a distant acceptance that things had gotten very unpleasant and were about to get worse.
This fall commenced with far less commotion than it had when Kio had been snatched and carried off by the bone dragon. That had been all violence and gnashing. But when the lifting runes on Raven failed, there was hardly a stumble between flying and falling. As though the piercingly clear sky around them would not permit it any other way. One moment each beat of his wings pushed him forward. The next, they started only to hasten Raven’s plunge.
Indeed, his first thought, even before fear for Karla, was: I guess we can’t use this to get to the surface after all.
Karla’s features were lost to him. His friend was a shadow against a silvery crescent, moonlight on the arc of a cloud. He could feel it when she looked up, though–at first like she was searching the stars, until Kio realized she was looking entreatingly at him.
He opened his mouth to say, I can’t save us. I’m out of ideas. There’s no time to test anything.
But she wasn’t asking to be rescued. Gently, her hands slid along Raven’s cockpit bar, gripping to take control of the wings. Still with both his arms holding her up, Kio couldn’t do anything.
“It’s all right,” she said, or rather screamed over the rush of wind. It sounded soft, though. “We just need to glide.”
And Kio didn’t know whether she was talking to him or to Raven or to the bird that had taken her place.
Something from that bird body stuck. Karla-as-human remembered. Few birds had to flap their wings perpetually to stay aloft. Most would find updrafts and glide. With their wings set they could bank, wheel, point most anywhere.
Raven stayed level. Under Karla’s guidance, the craft’s canvas wings–not Kio’s anymore–filled with wind. They were losing altitude, skimming the top of the silvery cloud floor, but she’d bought them another precious few minutes in the sanctuary of stars.
Kio let her guide him onwards. When a cloud shifted, revealing Nashido on the horizon, he couldn’t even say what he felt. He was mourning the death of something that had just grown in him, like when he was a child and had managed to climb one vine higher than the safe branch, only for all those above him to snap off in his fists.
The last thing he remembered as his prison grew larger in his eyes was something very old. And maybe something new. Kio Rokhshan rcalled a rough hand on his shoulder, and the rougher voice that belonged to it, saying: They’re coming. The gliders are coming.
“Fine, but that doesn’t make it not true. If I changed, you can change too.”
The two of them had been filling backpacks in the kitchen for fifteen minutes, though Karla’s was half as finished, since she’d spent most of her time pestering Kio to try and turn him into a raven. Kio, for his part, was mostly ignoring her, while he spent way longer than she knew he needed deciding whether empty glass bottles would be useful. He was wondering, she supposed, if any bone dragons happened to roost in empty sky kingdoms.
“Come on, Kio,” she pressed. “Just because you didn’t have the flashbacks doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You just don’t want to try.”
“I have tried.” Kio slipped one empty bottle into his pack and tossed her the other one. “I am telling you, nothing happened.”
Karla shifted the bottle around so nothing hard would bang against it. “That’s ridiculous. What don’t we have in common? What’s true about you that isn’t true about me?”
She looked up from her pack to find his soft Rokhshan face staring at her. “What?”
“Do you want the list?”
Kio counted on his fingers. “I’d rather read about something, you’d rather do it. I study, you plan. You like to climb but hate to cook.”
“Psh,” Karla said. “That just makes us people. Not different people.”
Because I’m not a Rokhshan. “Because I’m not a boy.”
“Fine. I’m a boy. You’re a girl.”
She stood up straight. “Yeah, but what does that even mean?”
“Wait.” Kio’s face turned bright red. “You don’t know?”
“Why, do you?”
“I…um…” Suddenly he was stammering, becoming extraordinarily interested in a rack of cast-iron tools along one stone wall.
“Did you read it in a book somewhere?”
“It’s not…the thing is…”
Karla was beginning to feel a little freaked out. “Never mind. Do you think it has anything to do with shapeshifting?”
Kio relaxed, a little, and picked out a pair of calipers for his bag. “Maybe. It would explain why I can’t do it.”
“You don’t know you can’t do it.”
“That’s the last difference.” He prowled the perimeter of the room, looking for other tools. He handed Karla a stout crowbar, saying, “You can turn into a bird. I can’t.”
“But if you tried–“
“I told you, I have!”
Karla believed this about as much as she did when he claimed he’d taken his turn to oil the high pulleys or mirror-charge the hard-to-reach moss. But she also blamed herself. She just hadn’t found the right way to explain it yet.
“I started to see the visions right when the bone dragon was opening the hole into the citadel,” she said. “It has to be connected. And you saw something too.”
“I said that night–“
“I know what you said. You lied. I can read you, Kio Rokhshan.”
“I wasn’t lying!” Kio slammed a metal spatula down on a wooden slicing board, which didn’t pain Karla too much, as she didn’t quite understand how a spatula would have helped in the sky kingdom. “I did see something. But it wasn’t nearly what you saw. You got overpowered and turned into a bird, and I just kind of…daydreamed a bit. At the wrong time. It wasn’t any sort of magic for me.”
This wasn’t what Karla had expected to hear, and for a moment, it stopped her in her tracks. Was there really something different about her and Kio that made her the only one who could transform? The idea led to a brief, overwhelming sadness: it wasn’t fair. Kio deserved to feel the amazing sensations she’d felt, the certainty of owning the whole sky.
Everyone did, really. Who was to say he didn’t get to because he was a boy?
Mara might know, she thought ruefully. Or Kio’s benefactor. Short of asking them, we may not find that answer.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she managed, and Kio was only too happy to agree. “Time for final inventory. You’ve got everything?”
“Almost.” Kio opened up his pack and hers, and together, they laid all the items out on the kitchen counter.
“Three days’ rations each,” Karla began. “In gull jerky, veggies, and those weird mushrooms Explorer Kio likes.”
“Better make it four,” Kio said, fishing several more small sacks out of a high cupboard and dividing them equally. “And you eat the mushrooms too.”
“Five days’ water, bagged.” She poked one skin distastefully. “Water is heavy.”
“It’ll get lighter.” Kio set them aside to pack last. “Furs.”
“Just wear them all. Saves space.”
“Presumably you’re gonna tear them out of books and fill your pockets with them.”
Kio smiled a bit at her assumption that he hadn’t already. “Rope. Fifty feet each, coiled.”
They went on that way, packing everything as they listed it. Crowbars to open doors. Chalk to mark their path. Work gloves. A spyglass. Paper and charcoal for a map. Jury-rigged compass.
At length, when all of it was ready, Kio prowled around the corners of the kitchen one more time. When he turned away from the last cabinet, he was holding a stout knife, and offering another to Karla.
Karla felt a chill. “You really think we’ll need those?”
“For cutting the ropes and stuff. If we need to.” Kio shook a little.
“You want to be armed?”
“It’s a tool.” Kio gulped. “A tool that would make me feel a lot better.”
She hesitated. Could a knife fight a bone dragon? What would they meet that this could stop? What would they meet at all?
“Karla, please just take it.” Kio jabbed the hilt at her.
“Fine, if it’ll shut you up!” The words sounded harsher than she’d meant, but there was nothing to do but follow through. She grabbed the long knife, slipped it into her belt, and shouldered her pack.
Minutes later, they were standing at the edge of the balcony where the sky kingdom’s landing was tethered. Karla had checked on Kio’s makeshift lashing trick with the propellors, and pronounced it surprisingly sound. Kio had managed not to be offended at the “surprisingly”–it was a compliment from Karla, an affirmation that he’d done what she would have.
Speaking of surprise: he hadn’t dared to hope the entrance to the kingdom would look better in the daylight, but with the storm broken, the clear rays of sun did make the whole thing look friendlier. The platform was wide and warm. The mooring columns were just mooring columns, not the clustered trees of a shadowy fairy-tale forest. The quiet was the silence of the still pond, not the cemetery.
He shot Karla a grin that surely failed to be cocky. She giggled. He could do this.
“Can you make the step?” he asked. It was a decently-sized shifting gap, with only the workshop roof far below. And their packs were heavy, though cinched around their chests and hips to distribute the weight.
“We both flew yesterday, remember?” She fiddled with her hair tie as she fixed her gaze forward. “One, two…”
“Three!” he said along with her, and they both jumped.
He sorely missed the runes on his back. Still, his leap carried him onto the landing. Karla landed right beside.
“New lands,” she said happily.
He drew strength from her strength. Adjusted his pack. “Let’s just do this.”
“How do we get beyond here?”
They both glanced around. Karla pointed out several staircases that looked remarkably like the freestanding flights of Nashido. Each one rose up to a landing with more space, that then connected to even more steps, until the second or third in each series was hewn directly out of the island.
Kio’s skin crawled as he got close. He never knew how to deal with rocks. The books, and Karla, assured him it was just another kind of castle, but that didn’t make him feel any better.
The first landing was piled with crates. Karla ran over to them excitedly. Kio raised his arm, opened his mouth to stop her from making so much noise, then wondered why that mattered.
She dropped her pack and clambered up one crate to peek under the lid of the one on top. “Damn,” she said, “it’s gone moldy. Come see.”
“That’s…that’s fine,” Kio said through the queasy feeling at the bottom of his throat. “Check the one on the bottom. It might not have gotten so wet.”
“You’re right!” She brightened, jumped down, and slid open the lower lid with more effort. “It’s a bunch of dry wheat. We could have bread, Kio! How long has it been since we’ve had bread?”
“If we grind it and get the oven working.” But bread did sound good. The last loaf had been years ago, but it had been light and warm and delicious. Kio was beginning to think they could pull this off.
Until he climbed the next staircase, and found the bones.
The skeleton was lying at the top of the steps, slumped halfway down. There was no way around the certainty that he had been trying to escape. Something had happened that convinced him he would do better to abandon ship.
Not all the bones were there. Over the years, some of them had rolled clean and fallen all the way to the sea. The others–a full ribcage, a leering skull–had been bleached white by years of sun.
Seagulls had long ago picked them clean of meat. That made it a bit better. But at the same time much worse.
He doubled over on the stairs. Don’t throw up, don’t throw up…
“What’s the–” Karla came up behind him. “Oh.”
There were more skeletons. The bones of those who hadn’t been as fast littered the landing stage, the boardwalk, the long avenues beyond. Miles upon miles of the dead, everywhere Kio looked.
He had hoped for one of the empty ones, the sky kingdoms whose citizens had managed to get out ahead of the end. This was not one of the empty ones.
If you liked this chapter, check out the rewards available on my Patreon, and please consider supporting me so I can keep producing the story for you!